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The Gut Check No. 405: 10 Potential Training Camp Risers

Matt Waldman examines 10 players he's monitoring during training camp and expects good things. 

Did you enjoy the past three months of mini camp and OTA reports? Were you thrilled about rookie wide receivers catching everything in sight against defenders that couldn't hit them? How about those running backs working through creases with about as much force as you handling the morning crowd at the transit station?

Yeah, about as thrilled as I am that Josh Gordon has yet to figure out his football career. 

Thank God it's time to get real. Thank God it's time for training camp. With hitting about to commence, I'm counting down my players that I expect to see rise the most in my rankings.

The longer I do this work, the less I'm inclined to put players at a high spot in my rankings when there are opportunities to wait and see notable reasons to merit such a spot. At the same time, I often know between May and July that I'll probably be less cautious as good news arrives in late July and August.

The reasons for the expected upgrades are several: Some are rookies who must prove their transition to the passing game isn't too bumpy; others have a recent history of injuries that bogged them down early and they didn't play to their ADP; and, there are options who I'm not as concerned about them as I am their surrounding talent.  

While I do what I can to supply comments for 95 percent of my Footballguys rankings, it's not easy for the reader to keep track of who I expect to rise without writing it down. This week, I'll do it for you so you'll have a handy list for August monitoring. Some of the players on this list are options I've already upgraded because I'm seeing good signs about their health and surrounding talent.

10. Dez Bryant

I bumped Bryant into low-end WR1 range this weekend because anything less than WR1 expectations from a healthy player of his skills and surrounding talent is ludicrous. Bryant was the No. 9 fantasy receiver in football after Week 6 last year and despite Dak Prescott relying heavily on the two-man game of Jason Witten and Cole Beasley in the short and intermediate range of the field, Bryant's 16.6 yards-per-catch average was at least 2.4 yards better than all top-12 receivers not named T.Y. Hilton (16.8 ypc). It's telling that Bryant and Prescott developed a down-field rapport and the Cowboys loosened up the game plan because Prescott proved reliable. My only concern is Bryant getting hurt. He competes hard in training camp so if he emerges unscathed by the end of Week 3, he'll jump another 5 spots into my top 5 receivers. It's not a huge jump, but we're taking this in reverse order of magnitude.

9. Jordan Reed

Reed is the answer to the question, "Which tight end in fantasy football has been the most consistent and productive during the past two years?" Reed's 2016 shoulder injury is another point on the list for the fantasy fearful to avoid him. With Reed as my No. 6 tight end, I've had a little of that fear this spring and summer. As long as Reed stays healthy, I have confidence in him as a top-three option in an offense that has the personnel and scheme to get him open at will. If you watched Washington's offense last year, you'll notice that the scheme employed a lot of four-receiver, three-receiver/one-tight end, or two-receiver, two-tight end sets with the same personnel. If Reed and Vernon Davis had a hand in the ground they were tight ends; if they didn't, they were receivers. Washington used these two options with a great deal of flexibility and it included a lot of shallow routes to the flats. Reed and Davis are both excellent runners in space and it's a fine chain-moving variation of the ground game. Even if you're not in a PPR league, these alignments did an effective job of creating meaningful yardage. The addition of Terrelle Pryor and hopeful emergence of Josh Doctson enlarges the receiving corps and makes them more effective as blockers down field. Reed was one of the better runners after the catch at the position that I have seen in college football since Aaron Hernandez.

8. Demaryius Thomas

Examine Footballguys' staff rankings of Thomas and you'll see comments about Denver's lackluster quarterback situation, but readers need to know about Thomas' hip injury that is discussed on Thomas' Footballguys Player Page.The hips are vital for an athlete's success, especially a wide receiver. When a wide receiver lacks strength and flexibility in the hips, he'll have difficulty accelerating off the line, dropping one's weight into breaks so there's a sudden stop or turn, and changing direction at top speed. Say what you will about Thomas' numbers declining from 2015, but he earned 33 fewer targets in 2016, played hurt all year (after getting injured on the offense's first play of the season), and worked with a quarterback not inclined to throw the ball downfield. If Thomas caught half of those 33 targets he didn't earn last year and earned 217 yards (13 ypc) last year, he would have matched his 2015 totals. I'm not ready to pin all of that Trevor Siemian just yet. Even so, Paxton Lynch demonstrated at Memphis, spot time against the Buccaneers, and OTAs this year that he's consistently a more aggressive downfield thrower, which could also benefit Thomas. Cecil Lammey reports that Thomas' hip has been healthy throughout the offseason and he's far more confident in it. If there are no relapses, I'm ready to sign off on him as a top-25 player on draft boards.

7. Dalvin Cook

Because I love you guys and it's time to raise the paywall over my articles, I'm going to drop some Rookie Scouting Portfolio truth bombs on you in the form of Dalvin Cook. The Florida State star was my No. 4 RB in my pre-draft edition of the RSP. However, rankings suck (although we all need and appreciate them) because they don't always give you a great understanding of a player's talent. The first six backs on my pre-draft board were so close together in terms of talent that any of them could have easily been inside or outside the top three based on a single change to their evaluations. Cook's greatest detriments are ball security and pass protection, and there's no doubt these two areas can make or break a rookie during his first season. If he continues fumbling at a rate of 1 per 63.8 touches, Mike Zimmer will have Cook on the bench faster than you can say, "Latavius Murray for three yards." 

However, fumbles and pass pro are the least discussed issues surrounding Cook's game. They're also the most valid issues. The ones that fantasy owners lock onto like nursing kitten are workout data and offensive line play. Unfortunately, like the kittens, they're eyes aren't open.

Let your competition hate on Cook's 4.53-second 20-shuttle and 7.27-second 3-Cone. I can't explain to you why his shuttle was below expectations. However, I have talked with an NFL Scout and a league analytics specialist with a football background who says he often mitigated team concerns about successful players by showing them high school times run at Nike Camps. 

Cook's 20-shuttle at the Nike Camp was a blazing 4.18 seconds.  Watch him accelerate past top athletes at linebacker and safety within the first 5-15 yards on film, match it with his Nike Camp time, and you should feel a lot better about trusting three years of Cook's film over drills run in March at an event notorious for asking its athletes to run cold. 

I'm not scared off by the 7.27-second 3-cone, either. DeMarco Murray ran a 7.28 and he creates space just fine. What's more important is matching the style of the runner with his physical skills and determining if those physical skills that aren't as sterling in a workout are essential for that style. Running backs in the NFL have a dimensional range of 5-6, 185 pounds to 6-3, 250 pounds.

That same range is wider than the ranges for cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers in the NFL. There are defensive ends in the range of 240-250 pounds. Scouts don't apply the same combine data standards to all three of these positions and smart applications of data include a creation of player styles and baseline data that fits those styles. Cook's running style is not one that's as reliant on hard cuts.  

Latavius Murray is a physical running back with good hands, but he also has a tentative, awkward style of changing directions that the result of two things: his gait and his processing of information at the line of scrimmage. Cook is a far more decisive runner with smoother footwork. As long as the Vikings offensive line stays healthy (the past two years make this a big "if"), Cook will maintain his recent upgrade in my rankings.

6. Alshon Jeffery (and possibly Carson Wentz)

While Jeffery is not in Jene Bramel's Critical Training Camp Injury Questions article, his history of hamstring issues has been troublesome enough that the Bears didn't deem him worth a second contract. When healthy, he's a good pairing (in theory) with Carson Wentz, whose vertical game has been inconsistent since his days at North Dakota State. Some of Wentz's issues are mechanical in nature, but I've seen writers cite the incorrect mechanisms for Wentz's struggles. I've long talked about the position of his feet over the location of his arm, but probably the best explanation of Wentz's mechanics and for that matter, throwing mechanics, in general, is from National Football Academies' Dub Maddox.

If you don't know Maddox, he's a nationally recognized speaker on the coaching circuit and a terrific high school coach who I've been told has been passed over repeatedly for offensive coordinator opportunities at the college level because head coaches fear if they hire Maddox, he'll soon prove to alumni that he should replace the head coach. I'm studying his R4 system, which is a simpler, smarter way for quarterbacks to read defenses—and it's applicable to any scheme. I think he'll be a name most college football fans will know within the next 10 years. 

Here's the breakdown of Wentz's mechanical woes from Maddox: 

 

My tangent to Wentz is important because Jeffrey is in Philadelphia to provide an "eraser" to some of Wentz's accuracy woes as a big rebounder who can win passes that aren't pinpoint accurate. If Wentz makes strides with his setup and release footwork, his intermediate and deep passing accuracy to the sidelines should be good enough for Jeffrey to handle the rest. If not, a healthy Jeffrey could be a minor disappointment.

And I'm beginning to believe that Jeffrey will be healthy. The receiver worked much of the year with a trainer who specializes in body alignment. The pair worked on strength and flexibility training to realign Jeffrey's back, which has been diagnosed as the root cause of his leg injuries. The trainer claims that Jeffrey has been working hard and without any flare-ups to his legs.

If this proves true, I'm inclined to bump Jeffrey in my rankings, provided that there's some documentable evidence that Wentz has improved.

5. Samaje Perine  

The biggest reason fantasy writers don't want to hype Perine isn't Rob Kelley. Fat Rob performed admirably for an offense that lacked healthy and sound running back talent last year. However, he's not that talent Perine is, and it's that "talent" tag that scares scribes in this industry who lean hard on speed and quickness data and production share. 

As is the case for Dalvin Cook, Perine's combine performance should be applied to his style. Perine is the most powerful back in this rich class of runners. Leonard Fournette lovers may hate hearing me say it–—and Fournette belongs near the top—but Perine doesn't need a long the momentum of an uninterrupted runway to flash his power. Washington's runner is built like a cast-iron skillet and he can either melt defenders upon contact as he generates heat downhill or he can swing that skillet like a blunt object in tight spaces.

Perine's draft stock dipped because Joe Mixon is an undeniable talent, and Perine added weight and dealt with injuries late in his sophomore and early in his junior year. Perine's quickness was notably absent at times during those years. There is some conjecture that the weight gain was for his role as a complement to Mixon. 

Whatever the reason, Perine dropped the weight after the 2016 season and his combine speed and agility times may not be blazing, but they are good for his size and a reflection of the acceleration and quickness that I observed from him as a freshman when he often outran safeties and maintained his separation against cornerbacks on long runs. 

If you look at Perine and think LenDale White I have two things to tell you: White was quick enough to be a productive running back if he worked at his game and maintained his conditioning, but he drank himself out of the league. Perine is closer to Michael Turner and Jamaal Anderson than White or Shonn Greene.  

A good receiver out of the backfield as long as his transition to the passing game (pass protection reads) is smooth, I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Kelley's job by late September. I won't be surprised if he earns it by the middle of camp. If he does, Perine will be among my top 20 backs. 

4. Stefon Diggs

Diggs played through a Week 4 groin injury for the rest of the year, citing that he was 'never the same' according to Vikings beat writer Matt Vensel. The receiver blames himself, which means he didn't feel like he was in sufficient shape and has figured out how to amend that problem. Pair that information a Vikings offensive line that Matt Williams rightly notes is "poised to go from dreadful to serviceable," and you're looking at a receiver on a team that leaned on him as a short-yardage, YAC machine who could deliver well on the YAC due to his injuries.

Even so,  Diggs managed 903 yards and 3 touchdowns on 84 catches. His 10.75 yards per catch were well off his 13.84 average the year before and the offensive line and the team's forced adjustment to Sam Bradford are significant factors behind it. This is where I believe my colleagues are getting it wrong with Diggs' 2017 projections. Not a single one of them are projecting Diggs above 12 yards per catch when he earned nearly 14 as a rookie. 

This projection is too conservative based on last year's production with a modest bump as a "correction." In addition to Diggs' health and the upgrade to the line, Sam Bradford's deep ball prowess should also be noted here. Sam Bradford earned top marks for his accuracy on deep passes last year (71.6 percent), topping Drew Brees' NFL record of 71.2 percent in 2011 according to Josh Wilson of 12Up.com

 

 

Bradford had to throw the ball short far more often due to pressure but when he could go deep, Bradford displayed the deep accuracy that I thought was a major hallmark of his game at Oklahoma. Bradford actually throws some of the prettiest deep passes you'll see when he has time. He hasn't played for a team where he's either had the receivers or the offensive line to maximize this sterling trait of his. 

There could be more than a glimmer of hope this year for Bradford to do so and Diggs definitely has the route skills and quickness to be that kind of target both outside and from the slot. As long as the line stays healthy, I'll be inching Diggs up my rankings. 

3. DeVante Parker

I've lost patience with Ryan Tannehill as anything more than a competent signal caller in an Alex Smith sort of way, but I Parker has bought some patience from me this spring in the form of maturity. While most were on the DeVante Parker bandwagon the way they were with Tyler Lockett, I was not. Parker has all the physical gifts of a top receiver, but the details of his game were missing.

He was not adept at beating press coverage. When pairing that with a clear over-reliance on his physical skills early in his career, I saw Parker's repeated telling of the media that he relies on his God-given ability as a red flag for the early part of his career. 

One of the most common things that I hear from players, scouts, coaches, and position consultants is that young players underestimate how much work goes into football from the standpoint of year-round training. This includes diet, sleep, learning position technique, and developing a greater understanding of strategic concepts.

It's really no different than the real world. The best employees not only perform their roles well, but they also have a clear understanding of how to manage upward and that takes knowledge of roles that aren't theirs. Marshall Faulk understood passing games like a quarterback. Hines Ward could block like a fullback, finish like a running back, and identify defensive zones like a quarterback. Parker, like many young athletes, thought he could step into the league and outrun and outleap them on a weekly basis.

And he has shown that he can. What he didn't show was the ability to beat press often enough for Miami to move him outside as a rookie. As a sophomore, he frustrated his coaches because his lack of attention to his diet and recovery schedule hampered his workload last summer. While Parker flashed greatness at points last year, he finally figured out that the difference between starring in the NFL and bouncing around the end of summer depth charts before fizzling out in 3-5 years is about preparation and knowledge.

This spring, Parker has been in better shape and he's been an active student around veterans and coaches, asking questions about details of the offense that he hasn't done in the past. I'm ready to take some chances on Parker this year if this keeps up and it means bumping him up my rankings.

2.  Cooper Kupp

Kupp is at the top of my shortlist for surprise rookie performers in 2017. The fact that he's already listed as a starter on the depth chart as training camp opens is a strong sign of the team's confidence in his skills. Sean McVay said this spring that Kupp's mental grasp of the position is like that of a coach. Future Hall of Famer Steve Smith believes Kupp is the best receiver in this rookie class. And I haven't seen a better receiver against press coverage at the Senior Bowl since I began attending practices in 2009. 

Fantasy owners fear Jared Goff. They read the daily bashing of Goff in the media and wonder if Goff will be capable of getting Kupp the ball. While the question sounds insane to me when I read it literally, I understand the source of the concerns. 

However, fans, fantasy owners, and yes, some writers continually ignore the impact of surrounding talent and scheme on a quarterback. Goff's adjustment to a West Coast Offense from Cal's Air Raid was like learning Chinese in a few months and then being expected to speak it and understand it fluently in a crowded Hong Kong thoroughfare while desperately in need of a restroom.  

Considering the car Goff was driving had poor handling and a basic design for the rigors of Hong Kong's traffic, it's no wonder he had moments where it appeared he soiled himself. Are we also going to blame all of the Rams 22 dropped passed on Goff (8th most in the league)? Are we going to blame Goff for the receivers choosing not to spend time watching game film with him or working out with him?  

I'm not ready to call it quits on Goff's career because of his first year with the Rams under Jeff Fisher and a corps of veteran receivers I would not have wanted to work with if I were a quarterback. Even if Goff and the Rams only display moderate improvement to a level of production that we saw from Carson Wentz and the Eagles last year, that's enough to yield one starting-caliber option at either receiver or tight end, and the Rams' best option of the two will likely be Kupp in the slot.

Considering that Robert Woods, a good route runner and underrated receiver lost in Buffalo due to injury and other offensive woes, still has to prove he can be the primary option against top corners, it's likely that Kupp will earn the best matchups this year—especially when Tavon Austin hasn't proven that he can defeat press coverage, win consistently in the deep game, or display consistent improvement from one year to the next in anything but touchdowns scored and that's often a product of scheming for his skills after the catch. 

The Rams overpaid for Austin and are likely desperate to find ways to justify it beyond his special team prowess. However, I wonder just how tied McVay is to Austin. If the Rams cut Austin before June 1, 2018, they'll have $5 million in dead money but a $3 million dollar cap savings. If they cut him in 2019 after squeezing what it can from him as a return specialist, they'll have no cap hit and save $9.35 million. Considering the addition of receivers this year, I think McVay is tied to Austin. 

I like Austin's YAC skill, but Kupp breaks tackles and has similar acceleration and change of direction quickness. In fact, Kupp's 6.75-second, 3-Cone drill is on part with Amari Cooper (6.71 seconds) and Phillip Dorsett (6.7) and his 20-Shuttle (4.08) is in the range of Braxton Miller (4.07), Sammie Coates (4.06), and Dorsett (4.11). Kupp is a far better technician and pass catcher than all three of these athletes, which means he knows how to get on top of defenders early to earn separation.

He's also deceptively strong after the catch. Because opponents will be focused on the known names in this offense, I think Kupp could thrive early as a big-play option and eventually settle into the offense as a volume threat in the short and intermediate middle zones as a check-down or run-substitute in space while disappointing the hell out of Austin owners. Kupp can be had for a song and I'm by far the highest on him at Footballguys. I might go higher if the drumbeat remains steady. 

1. Sam Bradford

Bradford was an excellent quarterback prospect at Oklahoma who landed with Jeff Fisher's turnstile of less imaginative offenses (whether that was Fisher's influence or the coaches) and underwhelming offensive line. Thanks to injuries to himself and teammates and turnover of personnel, Bradford has been unable to develop a rapport with any of his offenses in three different stops. It's only one of several reasons why his 2016 performance is quietly impressive. 

Bradford arrived in Minnesota in September well after the team had spent months working with Teddy Bridgewater and Shaun Hill in Norv Turner's offense. Mike Zimmer asked Turner to adjust his offense to what Bradford does well, but those are significant adjustments to make during the first month of the season and Turner was not adaptable.

This is a common mindset for old-school coordinators and coaches who believe they've earned jobs on the basis of their schemes more so than their leadership. They also let that perception get ingrained by not displaying the skills to excel beyond what they know and bounce from team to team as recycled coaching material. 

Turner knows football and he'd be a fantastic offensive mind to learn about football. However, the track record shows that Turner is not adaptable with his scheme or as a leader. He reportedly did not like to adjust his scheme to players in order to maximize what the player could do. Instead, he preferred players rise to the scheme. 

While I get where Turner is coming from, it doesn't help a team improve fast enough if not everyone is bought into what Turner is selling. Zimmer and Turner could not agree on the changes that needed to be made and Turner quit before it became a huge media issue. I can respect Turner's decision because many coaches would have behaved in a dysfunctional manner that could have hurt the team even more. 

Even so, it meant Bradford and the Vikings were dealing with a new offensive coach, adjustments to the scheme, an injured offensive line that was serviceable at best when healthy, its franchise runner suffered a knee injury, and its best receiver (Diggs) suffered a groin injury at the end of the month. 

Despite all of these issues, Bradford completed 71 percent of his passes and posted a 20-to-5 TD-to-INT performance in 15 games. Bradford did this with an off-brand, injured version of Odell Beckham, Jr. and Eli Manning was statistically worse with the real deal. 

I was impressed with Bradford's poise in the pocket. He made some difficult throws under pressure and did so with anticipation and touch. If Bradford's surrounding talent stays healthy this month, I have to consider bumping him up my rankings and even incorporate him as a late-round QB2 in leagues where I embrace a greater amount of risk. 

I'm not expecting Bradford to shock fantasy football with a top-10 QB performance this year, but I think a top-15 performance is far more reasonable than his ADP suggests. 

Now I just need Josh Gordon to figure things out so I might enjoy some of my dynasty leagues a little more.